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Posted: October 07, 2008

Active Social Life in Midlife May Cut Men's Alzheimer's Risk: Study

Middle-aged men who enjoy an active social life may reduce their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia later in life, especially if they are predisposed to the disease, research experts say.

In essence, the research team from Johns Hopkins and Duke universities reports, middle age men who practice the adage of “use it or lose it” when it comes to being actively social may have an edge on the fatal, mind-robbing disease.

William Thies, vice president of Medical and Scientific Relations at the Alzheimer’s Association, reacted to the finding by describing it as a “fascinating study [that] provides some of the first relatively strong evidence that cognitive activity, including social interaction, reduces dementia risk. It is well conducted and of sufficient size to make the findings credible.”

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Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore and Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, conducted a 28-year study of 147 male twin pairs who were followed for dementia. They found that participants who had greater midlife cognitive activity in their leisure pursuits had a significantly delayed age of onset of dementia.

Protective effects were most apparent in identical twin pairs in the study, whose genetic and early-life influences were more similar and most tightly controlled, compared with the non-identical twins. Cognitive activity remained protective among identical twin pairs who were at elevated genetic risk for Alzheimer’s, determined by whether they carried a well-established Alzheimer’s risk gene, known as ApoE4.

In this study, which is part of the Duke Twins Study of Memory in Aging, the researchers divided cognitive activities into three categories -- novel, intermediate novel, and passive/receptive -- to differentiate activities that involved the active processing of new information from activities that were more passive or receptive in their processing demands. As an example:

The researchers found that participation in intermediate novel activities was most strongly associated with reduced dementia risk.

“These activities might be indicative of an enriched environment, which has been shown in animal models to enhance the creation of new brain cells and promote brain repair,” said study author Michelle C. Carlson, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Mental Health and Center on Aging and Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The research findings were published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.

In the article, the researchers said that they “were surprised to observe that . . . passive and receptive cognitive activities, including movie and theater going and television viewing, [also] were associated with reduced dementia risk.”

They noted that many of the intermediate and passive activities they tracked in the study were social in nature, whereas high cognitive activities such as reading and studying were primarily solitary in nature. A growing body of evidence suggests that low social activity is associated with increased risk for Alzheimer’s, and that mid-life and late-life social engagement is associated with better cognitive and physical health, even when there is Alzheimer’s pathology in the brain.

“Overall, these findings suggest that engaging in activities that incorporate both cognitive and social activity might confer protection against Alzheimer’s and dementia, particularly among those at elevated genetic risk for the disease,” Carlson said. “These results can help inform future preventive interventions, especially because they point to a range of activities that individuals are likely to maintain because they are rewarding, entertaining, and engaging.”

In the article, the authors added, “These findings have immediate implications for a generation of male baby boomers approaching retirement. Approximately one third of many individuals’ lives will be spent after retirement. The expansion of the human lifespan makes it imperative to identify lifestyle opportunities that increase health and ‘add life to years.’”

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